Memorial Church History Overview

“Religion is intended as a comfort, a solace, a necessity to the soul’s welfare, and whichever form of religion offers the greatest comfort, the greatest solace, it is the form which should be adopted, be its name what it will.”

- Jane Lathrop Stanford, co-founder of Stanford University

There is a legend that Jane Stanford notched the end of her umbrella. For years she and her husband, Leland, had traveled through Europe visiting churches, museums and other well-known institutions, and she was forever impressed by the depth of the relieve carved into stone by the master craftsmen through the ages. Frequently with parasol in hand, she developed a habit of checking the depth of the carving with the tip of her hand-held implement. And years later as her husband’s memorial was under construction, she would gauge the quality of the relief by inserting the same tip, notched to her satisfaction.

This same precision, this caring for quality in the minutest detail, was characteristic of Mrs. Stanford, the woman responsible for the creation and construction of Stanford Memorial Church, located in the center of the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, California.

There are few buildings with as striking a visual impact. When approaching the structure from virtually any angle within the inner quadrangle, one is awestruck by the magnificent mosaics which adorn the exterior façade.

The church was built as a memorial to Senator Leland Stanford, who had died in 1893; actual construction got underway six years later in 1899. The university itself had been inspired by the premature death of Stanford’s only child, Leland, Jr., who had succumbed to typhoid fever in 1884 just two months shy of his sixteenth birthday. The cornerstone at Stanford was laid in May of 1887; instruction got underway in the fall of 1891.

The church itself and much of the original campus was designed by 28 year old architect Charles A. Coolidge, a protege of Henry Hobson Richardson who had championed a Romanesque style with carved natural stone, massive columns, low rounded arch ways and red tiled roofs. The cruciform design (see the church plan) of the church (190 feet in length and 150 feed in width) incorporated an impressive clock and bell tower with an 80 foot spire.

The chief builder was a Scotsman, John McGilvray, who had been responsible for building such landmarks as the St. Francis Hotel and the City Hall complex in San Francisco before he moved to Stanford to develop the university grounds. It was McGilvray together with resident architect Charles Hodges who would lead Mrs. Stanford, fortified with her notched umbrella and sporting full length skirts, through the construction sites, even onto the highest scaffolds, to examine the various facets of the project firsthand.

From the initial design stages the Stanfords had always visualized a church as the central focus of the university. Although deeply religious people themselves, neither intended for the church to be for one particular faith or denomination. Rather, they wished to emphasize the importance of seeking spiritual truth and wanted to offer a sanctuary to people of every persuasion.

It was many years before, while on their travels in Europe, that the Stanfords met and befriended Maurizio Camerino, the manager of the Antonio Salviati studios in Venice, Italy. Salviati & Co. had developed a reputation for producing the very finest mosaics available at that time, and there is little doubt that the Stanfords were determined to make use of this stunning decoration in their future enterprises. Even as Camerino rushed to their aid in Florence upon the death of their son, the Stanfords could only have dreamed of the predominant role that Salviati would play in their future.

A mosaic is a creative composition consisting of many small separate pieces which when placed together form a unified design. Traced back to the fourth millennium B.C., this ancient art form has evolved in technique and popularity over the centuries and has flourished during certain historic periods. Mosaics may be composed of virtually any durable material and most commonly consist of cut pieces of stone, marble or glass. Known as “tesserae”, these small, often tiny, segments can be very colorful and from a distance tend to lose their identity to the overall design. By the late-nineteenth century Dr. Salviati had revived and improved the technique of mosaic manufacture and perfected a modern process for fabrication. He specialized in smalti glass, a colorful enamel of exceptional beauty, and in the production of brilliant gold tesserae.

Smalti, which first achieved prominence in the eastern Christian churches of the fourth century A.D., are opaque, cubical tesserae approximately 1/2″ x 1/4″ x 1/4″. Molten silica (glass) mixed with alkaline substances and various metallic oxides for color is poured into a form and allowed to cool. The hardened material is then cut into small irregular pieces, and it is the resulting fractured surfaces which accentuate the color and create the visual interest. Gold tesserae, on the other hand, are made by sandwiching gold leaf between layers of clear glass.

Salviati also devised a modern and less expensive process for fabrication and installation of mosaics. Traditionally, the mosaicist would draw the design onto a mortared surface and apply the tesserae, piece by piece, directly to the wall or floor. Not only was this time consuming, it required that all materials be available at each job site. At the Salviati studios, the artist created watercolor renderings which were submitted to the client. Upon approval, life-sized cartoons were developed from which tracings (reverse copies) were made. These copies were cut into carefully coded sections and distributed to the trained mosaicists who, in turn, would glue the colored tesserae in place, face down, on the paper sheets.

Once completed, the sections could be laid out for final examination by the artist before the final crating and shipment; but only the back side of the mosaic (and the reverse image) would be visible. When the sheets are finally installed on the job the paper is removed, one can then see the finished mosaic for the first time.

On May 17, 1890, Jane Stanford visited her friend Maurizio Camerino, who had assumed the ownership of A. Salviati & Co. ten years before, to discuss the mosaics for the memorial church which was already under construction. She expressed a desire to have a mosaic reproduction of Cosimo Roselli’s fresco of the Last Supper from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, and Camerino was able to obtain permission from Pope Leo XIII.

Camerino assigned Professor Antonio Paoletti, his 66 year old chief artist, to create the original watercolors for the mosaics at Stanford Memorial Church. Mrs. Stanford worked closely with Paoletti, planning a combination of Old and New Testament scenes. She was also firm in her desire to have women and men equally represented in the mosaic work. Lorenzo Zampato was put in charge of the in-studio fabrication and final installation in California. The artists at Salviati had more than 20,000 different shades of tesserae to choose from to duplicate the many colors and subtle variations in shading that were involved in Paoletti’s enlarged paintings. The project took five years to complete. The massive mosaic which adorns the exterior of the north facade of the church is the most awe-inspiring. Measuring 84 feet across at the base and 30 feet in height, the scene depicts Christ welcoming the righteous into the Kingdom of God.

It took 12 men 2 years to complete, and once installed, this mosaic was the largest in America.

Memorial Church mosaic facade

Mosaic facade

The inside of the church is exhilarating as well; mosaics are virtually everywhere, a perfect complement to Frederick Lamb’s stained-glass windows. The walls of the nave from the floor to the top of the clerestory are embellished by a series of murals, 15 on each side, depicting different scenes from the Old Testament. The central domed ceiling is supported by four pilasters each with its own mosaic archangel rising from clouds. And the chancel is elaborately decorated with a host of angels, capped by a band of prophets, flanking each side and focusing attention to the altar and Roselli’s Last Supper just beyond.

Memorial Church Glory of Angels mosaic

Memorial Church Glory of Angels mosaic

The splendor of this magnificent building, however, has not been achieved without sacrifice. Just three years after its dedication in 1903, and less than a year after the mosaics were completed, disaster struck.

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake of tremendous magnitude rocked northern California.

The clock tower and spire plunged through the roof of the church with such force that the entire north face of the building with its wondrous mosaic was blown out and totally destroyed.

Restoration of the structure got underway immediately although the decision was made to eliminate the clock tower.

t wasn’t until the fall of 1913 that Mr. Camerino arrived from Venice to evaluate the damage to the mosaics. Fortunately, the original drawings had been preserved in Italy; and although the entire chancel mosaic had to be removed and re-fabricated and the exterior mosaic had to be totally recreated, the project was completed by 1917.

On October 17, 1989, the earth shook once again. This time the integrity of the structure remained, but the mosaics of the archangels on the four pilasters were damaged, one severely. The church was temporarily closed while the University had repairs made. The church opened again in 1993.

Jane Stanford died on February 28, 1905, fortunately prior to the destructive ’06 quake. Yet even today when the mighty organ with more than 3,300 pipes fills the church with its awesome sound, it is not hard to imagine this determined and energetic woman with parasol in hand, walking the aisles, examining the lavish features and contemplating the effects on the countless thousands who have been inspired by the glory of the marvelous mosaics.

While my whole heart is in the university, my soul is in that church.

- Jane Lathrop Stanford

About the Author
Joseph A. Taylor is co-founder and president of the Tile Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization for research and preservation of ceramic surfaces in the United States.

Dedicated to accumulating both historic and current information about ceramic surfaces, Tile Heritage serves as a resource and referral service for the tile industry and the public at large and can assist anyone seeking to identify, authenticate, replace or restore an existing installation. In addition to editing the Foundation’s quarterly bulletin, Flash Point, Mr. Taylor frequently lectures and writes on tile-related subjects. The Tile Heritage Foundation is supported entirely by the contributions of its membership. For information and a free brochure, write:

The Tile Heritage Foundation
P.O. Box 1850
Healdsburg, CA 95448